Understanding human migration from go to whoa

It’s been an incredible month for Massey University Professor Murray Cox with his name on two research papers published in the prestigious journal Nature. The papers cross the full range of human migration from the earliest, leaving Africa, to the latest, colonising Oceania.

Professor Murray Cox infront of world map

Professor Murray Cox. Photo credit: David Wiltshire, Massey University

The first paper, published 21 September, gives weight to the idea that the movement of early humans out of Africa to Europe, Asia and Oceania occurred much earlier than previously thought and happened more than once. One popular theory had been for one exodus of humans leaving Africa to populate other parts of the world 50,000 years ago, but this research shows people first left Africa between 100,000 and 120,000 years ago. These populations largely died out and were followed by later migrations. Uncovering population X, as this early migration group is known, required scientists to pool data from around 500 people from 148 populations worldwide. Professor Cox contributed to the findings with his earlier studies of human groups across Indonesia and helped analyse portions of the data.

Closer to home, the second paper was published 3 October and looks at the genetic heritage of the first people in the Pacific.  The study examined ancient DNA from three individuals who were among the earliest to settle in Vanuatu (up to 3,100 years ago) and one who was among the earliest to settle in Tonga (up to 2,700 years ago). Analysis of their DNA has confirmed they were from Asian farming groups rather than having a suspected Papuan ancestry. People in the region today show Papuan genes, and Professor Cox’s research methods have made it possible to investigate how this mixing occurred. “It is likely that this later mixing of people with Papuan ancestry was largely driven by Papuan men who came to Oceania and married resident Asian women.”

Professor Cox says the paper gives us the first basic picture of the genomic makeup of Pacific Islanders. “Unlike European New Zealanders, where we can leverage off research done in the UK and USA, we knew very little about the genomes of Pasifika and Māori. We knew that they had a mixture of both Asian and Papuan ancestry, but had no idea how this came about or when.

“Knowing this is important because some of the genetic variations caused by this population mixing will likely be linked to health outcomes, perhaps explaining why health issues like obesity and diabetes are such challenges for Pacific peoples today. Ultimately, understanding this DNA may give us new ideas for health treatments.”

As a computational biologist in the Institute of Fundamental Sciences at Massey University, Professor Cox combines skills in anthropology, genetics, mathematics, statistics and computer science to carry out his research.

In addition to his interest in human genomics, he is also working on the genetics of agricultural species and is currently working to improve our understanding of beneficial microbes and pathogens. 

The Royal Society of New Zealand awarded Professor Cox a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship in 2010, to look both at human prehistory in the Pacific and gene regulation in fungi, which are important for controlling insect pests in New Zealand’s pastures. Funded by the New Zealand Government, the fellowships aim to support the development of future research leaders in New Zealand by providing funding support for five years.  

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Research articles

Nature paper: Genomic analyses inform on migration events during the peopling of Eurasia
Nature paper: Genomic insights into the peopling of the Southwest Pacific

Media coverage

NZ Herald: DNA detectives rewrite human history
NZ Herald: Skeletons reveal ancestors of Maori
TVNZ: 
Study of ancient DNA finds first Pacific settlers were Asian
Stuff.co.nz: New research on ancient Pacific skeletons reveals Maori ancestors
Radio NZ: Ancient DNA shows Asian farmers first Pacific people
The Guardian: 
DNA shows first inhabitants of Vanuatu came from Philippines and Taiwan
ABC News: 
DNA reveals Lapita ancestors of Pacific Islanders came from Asia